Given the fact that the Flaming Lips have been a band now for more than thirty years, it’s hard to imagine a time without the presence of Wayne Coyne. As one of the most omnipresent and reliably chatty frontmen in rock music, Coyne is seemingly everywhere, all the time. Between the Virgin Mobile television commercials that seem to be stuck in heavy rotation, the current publicity juggernaut the band has undergone in support of their dark and excellent new album The Terror, or the Zaireeka vinyl reissue the band let loose for Record Store Day, it’s hard to not know what the Flaming Lips are up to at any given moment. Not that this is a bad thing. Still, such ubiquity has its drawbacks. The extreme prolific-ness of the Flaming Lips sometimes makes it hard to appreciate how great the band actually is (even as The Terror hits stores, the band is still rolling out videos from last year’s Heady Fwends collab collection), and the day-glo hamster-ball psychedelia of the band’s live show — while charmingly gimmicky — can often overshadow the real emotional complexity of the band’s music. These are concerns that might cause other bands to press pause, but not so with the Flaming Lips. In a year filled with petty feuds, major breakups (Coyne was reported to have split from longtime partner Michelle last year), and more projects that most bands undertake over the course of a decade, Coyne himself is remarkably nonplussed. His candor and general lack of preciousness about making music and what it means to be in a rock band continue to make him one of the most compelling figures in popular music … and why he’s been one of my favorite interview subjects for so many years.
STEREOGUM: It’s been interesting to see how people have responded to The Terror. Have you been pleasantly surprised or unpleasantly surprised to people’s reactions to it?
WAYNE COYNE: Very pleasantly surprised, when we went down to SXSW a couple weeks ago you kind of make this stance. And I think it’s better to do something crazy and fail at it, than to do something safe and win at it. I think for the most part we really really love this music at the moment and it feels like we should just play it. It’s like “we should just do what we like and not worry about it so much.” And my feeling in the beginning was like, if people don’t like it in the beginning, much like people didn’t like the Soft Bulletin at first, and a year later I had — although I think music writers are probably a little different now than they were back in 1999 or whatever — but I had people say, “You know when this record first came out I get it, but a year into it it’s now one of my favorite records of all time.” So I don’t ever say, “they don’t get it” but luckily for us it seems like occasionally you do something that seems out of left field but people still come around to it. Look, we’re freaks and we’re following our hearts and I think people come to your rescue and say, “I understand and I’m with you” when they sense that is where you are coming from. So yeah I think that’s happened and I think that it is really great and now that The Terror has had so many great reviews that I think if someone said they didn’t like it I can be like “You’re crazy, you’re wrong” and feel fine about it.
STEREOGUM: A lot has been said about the darkness of The Terror, or that the record seems to really spring from a place of despair…as if that were some anomaly in your work. Even the most cheery Flaming Lips songs — the ones people sing along with at shows — are often some of the darkest. Even your most ostensibly upbeat material has a real thread of melancholy in it … so it’s not like these ideas are totally unheard of in your work.
WAYNE COYNE: Yeah, I totally agree. And I would say it’s both ways. It’s easy to hear a song like “Do You Realize?” and think that it seemed like a very kind of happy song … it’s major key, they seem to be in a good mood. It’s got kind of a dip in the middle but overall it’s kind of a triumphant song. And I would say that’s true on one level, but we’ve always had songs, even on Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, there’s “All We Have Is Now,” which is … it’s put around some other songs that seem a bit more optimistic, but that’s a pretty bleak thing to admit to yourself. What do you do with your life if you think this is true? And I think there’s always been darkness, but I don’t think we’ve ever purposely been as relentless.
STEREOGUM: I love that within the Flaming Lips there’s a real lack of being overly precious about what you make. I like the idea of making a lot of stuff and putting it out and quickly moving on to the next thing. You like that? Great! No, you hated it? Well, here’s this other thing we literally just made …
WAYNE COYNE: Well that’s the answer. If you’re too precious with stuff you overthink it and usually it becomes a bit more stale and boring because you think it’s so important. The best things happen without you being so aware of it. It’s happening and you’re listening to it as it comes out and … I think that’s what happens with us more these days. We listen more instead of being so much in the mindset of “we’re making music!” I mean, we are making it but we’re listening and
that’s … it sounds very simple, sounds easy, but …
STEREOGUM: It’s not. When it comes to making good art so much of the process is just getting out of your own way and letting it happen. It’s easy to overanalyze during the process and fumble everything up.
WAYNE COYNE: Oh I know. Part of it is everything is about you. You, you, YOU. How does it work? I don’t know. But luckily I’m working with Steven and Dave Fridmann and they’re masters of what they’re doing and a lot of what I’m doing is … I’m listening to what they’re doing and then saying, “well if you do that, then I must do this!”
STEREOGUM: I remember interviewing you at All Tomorrow’s Parties a couple of years ago, back when you guys were the curating the festival. We talked about the nature of your live show and how it had evolved. You were talking about what it felt like to go out and have this sort of celebratory, shared experience with an audience every night. How will that change with The Terror? It must feel very different to play this material. These aren’t songs that necessarily demand balloons and confetti.
WAYNE COYNE: We always made a choice that we would feature certain songs and that “Do You Realize?” would be our big song at the end. We played it like it was the national anthem or something. Like, of course everybody is gonna love this song! We could have stopped playing it five years ago and it would just be another song, but we purposely built it that way and it really worked, you know? But part of you just says, “Well that’s cool but how do we feel about this new music?” and when we went to sort of think about what are we going to perform with this new music and what are we going to do, the fellas just fucking loved doing just the new material. We play almost every song … I mean I love it too, but I kind of leave it to the band to decide how we’re gonna approach the live show. We have to agree to all work hard together, and we all agree to just work on this new stuff. Luckily, everyone in the group just loved this mood … and I think about halfway through the first rehearsal I was like, “why don’t we just start to act like we’re going to do this music, and not the other stuff?” And that was kind of the way the equation started to go and we knew we were going to have a giant show at SXSW. Well not a giant show, but a big feature of that week and we were like, well we could go up there and do the confetti and the balloons and stuff or we could do something radical, radical because that’s what was in our hearts, because we wanted to do this and because wanting to do this doesn’t mean you don’t want to do the other thing too at some point. You know you can’t have a gallon of ice cream and steak. It’s generally one or the other, but it doesn’t mean we don’t like the other.
STEREOGUM: Will the visual aspect of the live show now closely mirror the sort of thing you did on Letterman recently and at SXSW? I’m thinking of the scary, tentacled baby doll and the more stationary stage set ups …
WAYNE COYNE: Yeah, I think we’ll be evolving more toward that than these things we’ve seen and seen and seen for the past five years. I know people love them, but there’s a sense of like … well, we need to do the new things and we want to do new things, I mean we’ve always incorporated new things, but it’s kind of like watching Tokyo grow on time lapse photography, the old stuff is still there the new stuff is there and sometimes we just don’t want to do that. Sometimes we wanna inspire things like …”Did you see the Flaming Lips last night they fucking lost their minds, they took 20 hits of acid over the weekend and they freaking lost their minds.” Sometimes I just think that is more fun — to just fuck with it — so I found that weird fucking weird blue suit and that stuff to wear and I’m just like “I’m gonna wear that and I’m not going to pretend to be who we used to be, we’re who we’ve always been — we are weirdos who get lost in our own shit and that’s what you want!” I think the worst thing in the world is to think that it’s marketed and it’s calculated and we’re trying to find out what works best, I think it’s best to think “they fucking lost their minds … now, look at them go.”
STEREOGUM: I know there are still videos rolling out from the Heady Fwends collaborations.
WAYNE COYNE: Well that Bon Iver video for sure, really just … we really just thought it would be easier and quicker than it ended up being. And I sincerely mean that it seemed like the kind of thing where we were like, “we’ll get to it next week.” And then next week took seven months. And it was like we’re getting ready to put out this record, but now we’re finished with the video! And in this day and age it doesn’t really matter, you can have five things happen on the same day and it doesn’t really matter anymore because they’re just there. And if this had been five years ago we probably wouldn’t have done that. We’d have stopped and said we’re not going to do that. But with this there was no marketing involved … we put it out as soon as we finished it, it just happened to be on the same day this other record came out. Who cares? It doesn’t matter.
STEREOGUM: Anytime you mention a new project or some possible new collaboration, people seem to jump all over it. The recent mentions of you working with Ke$ha on a album, for example …
WAYNE COYNE: I don’t really pick and choose projects, I just feel like what I’m interested in, I can make happen. And I’m not really worried about how much time it’s gonna take. I mean we’ve already done a lot of music with Ke$ha … Ke$ha and I had just texted about it again. I’m always urging her, look come on lady, we gotta make this weird record! And then finally she’s like, “I know we do, when are we going to make this?” We already have some cool music and I can’t wait for the world to hear it because it’s so cool. And I’m not even thinking about her image or anything. To me anybody would hear this music and go “Oh fuck what a great song!” and then maybe they’d think about it for a minute and go, “That’s fucking Ke$ha and the Flaming Lips?! Fuck! Now that’s weird.” But I think anybody will hear it and go, “whoa that’s cool.” And that’s why I’m always pushing her; I mean she’s pushing me, too. She’s got more production-related responsibilities than I do. I don’t have anyone saying, “okay we’re gonna release a record now.”
STEREOGUM: What will the rest of this year be like for you will you guys be doing a massive amount of touring?
WAYNE COYNE: Well we never do a massive amount. I’m always reminded that normal touring groups like Pearl Jam, they’ll play 200 shows in a year and it’s like … 200 shows? I mean, there’s only 365 days in the year! We haven’t done that in long time. We’ll do like 100 shows in a year, because we have an album out, but we’ll do that every year. And a group like Pearl Jam will take three years off, but the Flaming Lips doesn’t take time off, this is just the way we live.
STEREOGUM: Given the gloomy nature of The Terror — and what people have heard about what might be happening in your private life — I think there’s the assumption that this record is coming from a very dark place for you. People want to read into this record as something autobiographical.
WAYNE COYNE: Yeah, I know. I think people hear music and they just cannot disassociate the mood from the person … and I think that we of course have complicated lives and we have great things happening in the morning, bad things happening in the afternoon, and great things happening at night. Such is the nature of life, you know? I think people will see us and think, you guys are crazier and more energetic and more intense than ever. It should not be the opposite; there’s nothing that is making us retreat from the world. And I think having this type of music … I think it gives you a lot of power. Because you stand there in front of people and say these really powerful things. And that’s how I felt when The Soft Bulletin came out, and people were asking, “is this you guys sort of retreating?” and I’m like, No! I don’t think we ever considered that. So, I have some sadness in my life … I also have great things in my life, like anybody does. But I think you’re right, if you look at what we’re doing it’s probably going to be more insane than ever. A lot of cool shit happening. I think if Steven and I always worked from a place of complete freedom — which is what this record really is, in a sense — we would steer toward this kind of thing a lot more than making upbeat music. I think a lot of the time we get caught up in the production of things and just run with it — which somehow results in a lot of more upbeat sounding stuff. But we listen to a lot of music like this: great, sad, expressive music. I think this is just another part of our personality. It doesn’t mean I am sad.
STEREOGUM: I really love it. And I’ll be honest, I think it will be cool to see you change the live setup of the band. I appreciate all the confetti and rainbows, but I think it will be cool to see you do something really dark and fucked up. It takes me back to the early days of he band, back when I used to see you play in tiny clubs back in Oklahoma City when I was in high school.
WAYNE COYNE: I think it’s gonna be the most intense shows we’ve ever done. And it’s not gonna be, “oh they didn’t do this they didn’t do that,” it’s gonna be, “they did this other thing, and it was fucking nuts.” I just think it’s great intense music … I mean it’s fun, even when it’s meant to be sad and disturbing and intense. I mean, we’ve always done songs that are kind of like that, but when you sing a song like “Do You Realize?” — as much as we try to explore other dimensions of ‘what does this song mean?’ and hope it means that to the crowd — it can still just be a singalong. But singing a song like, “Try To Explain,” and see that half the people in the crowd are like, “Brother I’m with you, I know I’m with you, I know exactly what you mean even though none of us can really speak about it.” There’s a solidarity there, like “I know what you’re talking about.” To me that’s where all the power comes from.
Flaming Lips tour dates
05/02 – Atlanta, GA @ Aaron’s Amphitheatre at Lakewood *
05/03 – Nashville, TN @ Bridgestone Arena *
05/04 – Chattanooga, TN @ Track 29 ^
05/05 – Memphis, TN@ Beale Street Music Festival
05/10 – Napa, CA @ Bottle Rock Festival
05/16 – Montclair, NJ @ The Wellmont Theatre
05/17 – Brooklyn, NY @ The Great GoogaMooga
05/20 – London, UK @ Roundhouse
05/21 – London, UK @ Roundhouse
05/22 – Brighton, UK @ Brighton Festival
05/24 – Paris, FR @ Villette Sonique Festival
05/25 – Dudingen, CH @ Bad Bonn Kilbi
06/14 – Hultsfred, SWE @ Hultsfred Festival
06/15 – Arhus, DEN @ Northside Festival
07/11 – Raleigh, NC @ Time Warner Cable Pavilion *
07/12 – Greenville, SC @ Charter Ampitheatre *
07/13 – Louisville, KY @ Forecastle Festival
07/27 – Troutdale, OR @ McMenamins Edgefield
07/28 – Seattle, WA @ Capitol Hill Block Party
07/31 – Costa Mesa, CA @ The Pacific Ampitheatre
09/06 – Isle of Wight, UK @ Bestival
* = w/ The Black Keys
^ = w/ JEFF the Brotherhood
The Terror is out now on Warner Bros.